After surviving the last 15 months of the Covid-19 pandemic through grit, hustle and grassroots community support, the Beachland Ballroom and Tavern has finally completely reopened and is selling individual tickets for shows. Now, longtime owners Cindy Barber and Mark Leddy are hoping to use federal relief funding to stabilize their business and begin to realize their newly-congealing dream of creating an arts campus on Waterloo Road in North Collinwood.
Except for a couple of months in fall 2020, the Beachland, a 20-year-old independent concert venue housed in a former Croatian hall, was completely closed for a year. They eked out a meager living through tapping into government grants and loans and online merchandise sales before they were finally able to reopen for limited capacity concerts three months ago.
“Our general manager Todd Gauman had a great metaphor,” Barber said with a laugh, sitting on a barstool as a bartender fussed with the trying to get the venue’s new point of sale system up and running. “We’re like Tarzan swinging in the jungle — you just have to have faith there’s going to be that next vine to grab.”
Fortunately for the Beachland, there was something to grab onto on the other side. Money from the Paycheck Protection Act and disaster loan assistance from the Small Business Administration, along with strong merch sales and lots of community support through personal donations helped the long-struggling venue to stay afloat. Additionally, donations came into the nonprofit Barber created in 2012, Cleveland Rocks: Past, Present and Future, which supported a SaveCLEVenues fund.
“If it wasn’t for Covid, we never would have created an online merch store,” Barber said. “Out of the goodness of people’s hearts, they supported us.”
With the help of the government relief funding, Barber was able to keep five people on staff to help process ticket refunds, re-book shows, and plan future shows. They also spent the much-needed down time making improvements to the building, including painting the ballroom and refinishing the floors, building a new soundboard, and remodeling their kitchen so that they can expand food service.
The wellspring of community support was in full display on Wednesday night, when more than 100 people packed the tavern to celebrate its long-awaited reopening. “People are really ready to come back, I think,” said Barber. “We had so many people say, ‘Thank God, I haven’t been in this room in 15 months, this is amazing.’”
Of course, like many independent music venues, the Beachland was struggling well before Covid, and has been a shoestring operation since they opened 20 years ago.“We were in trouble even before the pandemic,” Barber said. “Music is not an easy thing to do. In 20 years, we’ve never made money. We’ve broken even and been able to pay people, but that’s about it.”
She’s hoping that might slowly change in the future, as she ramps up Cleveland Rocks: Past Present and Future and uses it as a vehicle to help support efforts to amp up Cleveland’s music economy.
“Since Covid, we’ve really expanded that mission in some ways,” she said. “My board is getting behind creating a grassroots campus for our education and music industry development efforts and tieing that into the live music venue experience at the Beachland.”
For several years, Barber and Leddy and their crew have worked with Tri-C’s Recording Arts and Technology teacher Marky Ray to train students to be stage hands and tech assistants for music events. Over the years, they’ve seen graduates of this program land work with national tours. “Seeing that made me think we could do even more,” Barber said.
Their long-term goal is to work with Tri-C, Cleveland State University, and even area high schools to teach students music industry skills such as how to set up live streams, record documentaries, write music journalism, and create compelling video content. “We have the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame here, but we don’t have the music industry economy that’s even close to what the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame city should have, in my opinion,” she said. “So, the question is, how do we get there?”
If all goes as planned, funding from the Shuttered Venues Operator Grant that was pushed through Congress earlier this year will help to make the Beachland whole from its pandemic related losses and position it for a more sustainable and healthier future. The Beachland has never really had a transition plan, but that could change, as well. Barber, who recently turned 70 years old, is hoping to begin transferring ownership of the Beachland to some of her longtime employees through an equity ownership plan.
On the eve of the Beachland reopening after its long, strange hiatus, Barber said with a cathartic laugh, “I know that a lot of people are looking forward to simply seeing live music again, and so am I, but I am really looking forward to getting some much needed stability and being less stressed.”
Lee Chilcote is a freelance writer and editor of The Land.
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